In conversation with a legendary performer: Captain Beefheart

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      Captain Beefheart’s interest in the occult was evident as early as 1966, when the 25-year-old Californian took on the persona of a grizzled West Indian conjurer in his song “Obeah Man”. Too weird for radio and too pop for the nascent white-blues boom, the tune wasn’t released until 1999, on the Revenant Records compilation Grow Fins: Rarities 1965-1982.

      I had a small taste of the Captain’s psychic powers earlier than that, however, when I interviewed the man born Don Van Vliet, by phone, in advance of his Commodore Ballroom appearance to promote his 1978 comeback record, Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller).

      Where did I put that tape? It’s here somewhere, along with far too many uncatalogued archival recordings. But I recall a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation, with Beefheart displaying elements of his trickster persona while also coming across as a genuinely friendly individual.

      That, in itself, wasn’t startling. More surprising was when, half an hour after we got off the phone, I got a call from our mutual friend, improvising guitarist Henry Kaiser, who wanted to report that Van Vliet had spoken to him after our chat and had given him an exact description of what I looked like, down to size, height, eye colour, and follicle loss.

      I reviewed my interview tape, only to discover that we’d never discussed my appearance. Size, I guess, Van Vliet could have deduced from the resonance of my voice; I sound like a large man and am. But the rest? It puzzled me then, and it still does.